Maria for smashword


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Maria for smashword

  1. 1. Maria by Rhea HarmsenCopyright 2011Cover art by Lua HarmsenCover design by Rhea Harmsen 1
  2. 2. I never think of her without whispering a silent prayer. The first time I met Maria she was coming out of a physicaltherapy office, she didn’t acknowledge me. Of course, she didn’t knowme. We had been sitting in the waiting room, Carol and I, trying to keepher two kids busy, which wasn’t easy. Well, I should say, with mixedresults. The four year old girl was docile and shy, and so eager to pleasethat by simply pulling a magazine out of the rack and showing her thepictures I could keep her seated. I felt uneasy, though, as if I were inbreach of some child protection law, for encouraging her to be obedient tome, a stranger. But Carol was busy trying to keep little Juan from runningout of the waiting room and into the street. He had been good for a long time, absorbed by his hand-sizedinosaur and miniature Buzz Light Year, pitting them one against theother and making the accompanying battle sounds. During that time Carolhad talked to the little girl in such terms of affection that she had slowlykindled a response. Carol spoke in hushed tones but her voice was the kind thatreverberated and filled the small room. The eyes of the other waitingpatients kept touching on us and then flitting away. I could sense theirlistening, their questions. Why were these American women messing withthe two Puerto Rican kids while their mother was in the doctor’s office? 2
  3. 3. After an interminable wait Maria came out. And though I had triedto picture her, nothing could have prepared me for how wide off the markI was. Her hair was honey colored, and cut very short. Her makeup wasfull, but then that wasn’t unusual. I had noticed since arriving in PuertoRico that women invariably wore full makeup. But most striking was herclothing, I guess. The kind of mini skirt you see on women on T.V. Onlythe color was subdued, a kind of gray. But the style was short--top of thethigh short. And at the end of a vast expanse of legs were high-heeledblack sandals. Altogether, she was a gorgeous creature. Covering one bigtoe was a gauze bandage, and I surmised this to be the cause for thephysical therapy. I found out later she had had surgery that very morning,for an ingrown toenail. “Maria!” Carol exhaled, getting up from her seat, as swiftly as alady of her years could manage. Throwing her arms about her shewhispered, “My dear, dear Maria.” She held her very tightly for what I felt was an eternity, given thecovert watching eyes, until I noticed that Maria was returning the hug. A hushed conversation ensued, in Carol’s staccato Spanish. “?Mascómo has estado?” with acute emphasis on the “cómo.” That emphasis on“how” she had been, implied that it had been a very long time. All ofCarol’s longing to know was carried in that inquiry. I didn’t reallyquestion at the time why there were so few answers to Carol’s questions. “Necesita ayuda?” Carol whispered loudly. “Estamos aquí para 3
  4. 4. servirle.” And then Carol realized that she was offering a ride in my carand belatedly introduced us, stressing that I too was part of Maria’s“family.” At this point I expected a connection. Maria gave me a kiss on the cheek. But there was no connection. Iremember thinking she was a long way off somewhere; that she wasn’texactly present. As we stepped out into the street Carol asked if she was tired, orwould she and the kids like to come back to the house for a little while.She accepted. “Estoy seca, seca!” she exclaimed, passionately. As we walkedaround the block, stepping over the uneven, sometimes absent pavement,she went on about how she hadn’t had a drink of water for hours. She wasdry, very dry! It was a sweltering day, one in a long string. No point ineven trying to un-stick my sweaty clothes from my body. I had parked the van half way on top of the sidewalk. There wasbarely enough room for passing cars. The narrow streets of the Pueblowere completely congested with three o’clock traffic, all the kids being letout of school at the same time. I was freaking at a traffic jam that seemedimpenetrable. I vainly wished my van had air conditioning. When we got to Carol’s she gave Maria some juice. I don’tremember if the kids got any. I got myself a glass of water. Maria wasloudly protesting against her kids running into her foot. Although I was 4
  5. 5. still struggling with my command of Spanish I understood that the paincould be excruciating. I saw her cringe and hide her bandaged toe behindher leg. When we sat in the living room Carol’s painstaking Spanish beganagain. “I heard that you were in the hospital, that you had some kind ofparalysis. That you had un derrame nervioso. ¿Qué pasó?” Withoutwaiting for a reply she went on, “I didn’t have your phone number, and Icouldn’t climb the stairs of your building. Finally, when she moved intotown,” she motioned in my direction, “I asked if she would come with meto visit you. We stood in the plaza in front of your building and yelled outyour name. Your neighbor came out on the balcony and said you hadgone to physical therapy and so we came to find you!” At the end of that exhalation Carol sat back and positioned herselfto listen. It was a silent, selfless listening. Maria began an account of whyshe had been out of touch for more than a year. It was conversational, butdisorganized. But it kept building. At the end of an hour I had a mentalpicture. And it was more than my mind or heart could hold. She said she couldn’t come to the meetings because of herhusband. He didn’t like her going out. He didn’t want her to see otherpeople. He drove her everywhere she had to go. Even to take Juan toschool. He got mad if she walked down the block to drop the child off. Hesaid she was trying to meet other men. So she had to stay in the apartmentall the time. Or he took her to work with him. And when she was in the 5
  6. 6. apartment, she had to be with him, in the room. He didn’t like her givingtoo much attention to their kids. That made him jealous. He didn’t like the kids to leave anything out so she kept everythingperfect. Living like that made her tense all the time. She didn’t disobeyhim in anything. She had to take her shower when he said so. She couldn’tbuy the kids any thing they asked for. It hurt not to be able to buy themeven a little toy. Her health was messed up because of Jose’s beatings; it had madeher paralyzed on one side. I was fuzzy on the details of this, because therewasn’t any visible evidence of paralysis. She said that one time when hewas beating her, her eight year old son, the one that wasn’t living with herright now, had had a trembling fit and fallen on the ground. That was theonly time she talked back to him, saying that if her son died she would killhim. The strain of living like that had gotten to her, she’d had abreakdown. They put her in the hospital. He came after her, said she wastrying to meet other men. He started punching her. “In the hospital he hit you?” “Sí, sí. Me bofeteaba, me bofeteaba.” She kept repeating the word,making the punching motions. The two kids were crouched near her feet.Carol had found them some crayons. Maria kept her foot well hidden. Thelittle girl kept coming near, trying to sit on her lap. The boy hovered. It was as if they were tied to her by an invisible rubber band. I felt 6
  7. 7. the children’s alertness. They were at times silent like phantoms, at othertimes they tried to get her attention, speaking over her voice and pullingon her arm. Maria was undeterred in her story telling. Her momentum keptbuilding. They had put him in jail, she said. “¿De veras? ¿Lo pusieran en la cárcel?” Carol enquired, her mouthopen. It was obvious she was struggling to keep up with the responsesdemanded of the moment. I was more than dumbfounded. I tasted salt inmy mouth. “Me amenazó.” He threatened to kill her. The doctors and nurseshad had to pull him off of her. In the hospital she had lost her mind completely. She couldn’tremember her children. She didn’t know them. She asked if there wasanyone she should know, and they told her. But she couldn’t rememberwhat they were like, their personalities. She didn’t want to remember anything, do anything. She had nowill to live. The doctor told her that there was too much pain and that iswhy she couldn’t remember. But only if she faced the pain would she getbetter. She lay for days like that and something in her told her she had tofight for those children. So she tried to face the pain. She screamed andscreamed, trying to bear it. And slowly their little faces had come back to 7
  8. 8. her. How long had she been out of the hospital? “El Viernes pasado.” Last Friday. It had been one week sinceshe’d come home. At night she just put the children on the mattress shehad on the floor and they all slept together. She was learning how tobreathe without listening for the door to be kicked in. One part of her narrative was difficult for me to follow; I kepthearing her use the verb me quitó. He took away. She repeated it over andover, adding on to the list. He took away my belief in love, my self-worth,my self-respect, my hope. He took away my sanity. He took away mychildren. She had reached a point where she could no longer hold back. Itwas a torrent. The desire to empty out her heart seemed to have takenover. I don’t remember whether it was Carol or I who asked thequestion, the one that was hanging in the air. “Y José, cuanto tiempo va estar en la cárcel?” How long would hebe behind bars? How long could she breathe? She said she had to go to court on the 22nd. That she would findout then. “Necesita apoyo?” Carol asked. Did she want someone to go withher? Maria seemed a little taken aback. Then she explained that theymade her the key witness, it all depended on her. It would get ugly. “Va 8
  9. 9. ser muy sucio.” “Ahhh...” Carol smiled her angelic smile, “He visto sucio.” Shewas not so innocent; she had seen plenty of dirt in her life. We’ve been trying to get a hold of Maria for over a month. Itseems her cell phone isn’t working any more. She must have used up allthe minutes on her card. No one answers when I stand in front of the pinkapartment building and yell my head off, very self-conscious of the staresI elicit. Before we lost touch she came to a few meetings. One was adomestic violence meeting. I wrote inviting her to others. But she’svanished off the face of the pueblo, it seems. Last night at the women’s meeting someone told Carol. They sawMaria in court on the 22nd. She spoke in José’s defense. He was let out of jail. She’s back with him. And she’s disappeared. I never think of her without asking, “Why?” What threats, whatlies? How did he get to her? Why did the system leave her so unprotected? I always feel guilty. Something slipped through my fingers and Ican’t get it back. When I go to the pueblo I keep searching the faces ofwomen on the streets, looking for Maria. I never think of her without praying God protects her. And those children. 9